The Diamonds’ first series in more than a year, after a compromised preparation and with key players missing, was never going to answer the myriad questions swirling around the once-mighty national side. But in losing the Constellation Cup, at least one top-line issue about the team, which now does not hold any silverware, has been emphatically addressed.
All indications are that new coach Stacey Marinkovich is building a gameplan for next year’s Commonwealth Games and the 2023 World Cup based on a “moving shooting circle”, leaving 102-Test veteran Caitlin Bassett, long considered the best holding shooter in the world, without a place in the starting seven – and maybe even the squad.
It was a challenging tour for Bassett after a forgettable 2020, when she played just one full Super Netball game, was injured and walked away from playing in Australia. This series, Bassett was unofficially dumped as captain when Marinkovich announced a “squad leadership approach” – that saw a different captain each Test – and she then played just 53 minutes, in two of the four matches.
It is in stark contrast to how Bassett was treated under Lisa Alexander. Throughout the former coach’s tenure, Bassett was an automatic pick and seen as a valued leader. A number of shooters have been pushing for national selection in recent years, but most fans and pundits assumed Bassett, who turns 33 in May, would be in the mix for at least one more major tournament. That assumption prompted to a debate about who was best placed to partner her at goal attack.
But everything changed in Christchurch. She got the nod as match captain and starting goal shooter for the first post-quarantine Test on Tuesday, but Bassett was taken from the court at three-quarter time, with the Diamonds trailing by nine. She was replaced by 25-year-old debutant Cara Koenan, who sat behind both Bassett and Peace Proscovia at the Sunshine Coast Lightning until she burst on to the scene last Super Netball season..
Coincidentally, it was Ferns’ boss Noeline Taurua who took Koenan’s game to the next level when she was Lightning coach. Once on court in green and gold, Koenan starred, sinking seven straight and partnering seamlessly with starting goal attack, Keira Austin, who never looked comfortable with Bassett despite the pair being teammates at the Giants.
The Diamonds lost the first Test 49-44 and Bassett’s fate was seemingly sealed. She only saw eight more minutes for the series. In the second Test, won by Australia 45-36, Austin and Koenan were the starting combination and played all but just over 10 minutes together, when debutant Sophie Garbin took the court but failed to fire. Austin, one of just two specialist GAs in the 18-woman squad, was strong defensively, but shot at just 54% and had four turnovers.
After winning that match without Bassett, second Test captain and probable new permanent captain, Liz Watson was transparent. “In that attack end, we’re trying to get that moving circle and that’s what those girls [Koenan and Austin] bring, that’s their strength. We’ve designed a gameplan around those strengths.”
In Test three on Saturday, it was the Austin and Koenan show again. Bassett was only sent on with eight minutes left and the Ferns coming like the proverbial freight train. She faltered, making several mistakes and New Zealand pulled away to win 55-49. And in Sunday’s fourth and final Test, Bassett again rode the pine. Despite both shooters showing signs of fatigue in the second half and the hosts again reeling in a Diamonds lead, Marinkovich left them oncourt. The Ferns fought back to win 45-43 and claim the Constellation Cup for the first time since 2012.
The only conclusion to be drawn is that Marinkovich wants a moving circle combination which shares the scoring load, rather than predominately relying on one. If she sees the two young movers as potential long-term starters, that leaves Bassett as an impact player at best.
In the wider squad but not on this tour, Marinkovich also has Gretel Bueta, who is only just back to club training after the birth of her son in January, and Steph Wood, who plays with Koenan at Lightning but is recovering from knee surgery. Both have played goal attack to Bassett’s goal shooter in the past.
If Wood can overcome her knee issues, she is at a distinct advantage by playing with Koenan week-in, week-out in Super Netball. But Bueta, who came to the game relatively late after playing high-level basketball as a junior, has an x-factor that might appeal to Marinkovich.
And then there is Bassett, who is not returning to Australia with the rest of the squad – she is joining Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic. If she has a stellar season and finds the form which helped her lead Australia to some famous triumphs, will Marinkovich be forced to reconsider? Or is she determined to make a clean break from the Alexander years and go in a different direction? Only time – something Marinkovich does not have lots of – will tell.